Buttons & Lace

By: Penelope Sky
Chapter One

Pearl

Winter raged through New York City. A colossal force of nature, the snow caked against the skyscrapers and sprinkled the streets with icy kisses. The Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center still stood tall and proud, but it was quickly blanketed with a white sheet.

The tree stood in the living room, and a string of white lights had been wrapped around it. I always insisted on a real tree in the apartment. That pine smell from the great outdoors really brought the holidays to life. It left pine needles all over the floor and it was difficult to manage, but it was still worth it.

I held the ornament in my hand as I tried to find a place to put it. It was covered with sloppy red paint, and a picture was wedged in the center. It was Jacob when he was eight years old. He made it for a class project and took it when he moved out of his parents’ place.

Christmas was difficult for me to understand because I’d never truly celebrated it. I grew up in a foster home, and the one time I was adopted, my adoptive parents quickly took me back when they realized having another child was too much of a financial burden. It was just a few days before Christmas.

A knock sounded on the door, and my fingers almost released the ornament. If it crashed to the floor and shattered, I never would have been able to forgive myself. Jacob cherished his childhood. He had two loving parents who adored him and a sister he battled every chance he got.

I returned the ornament to the box before I opened the door. A man in a black leather jacket stood across the threshold. His long black hair was slicked with grease, and his bushy eyebrows made him formidable. The leather boots on his feet gleamed with melted snow from the sidewalk.

Like he owned the place, he stepped inside. “Where’s Jacob?”

“Whoa, hold on.” I placed my palm against his chest and pushed him back. “I didn’t invite you inside. So keep your ass across that line.” I tapped my toe against the metal strip that separated the hallway from my apartment.

His eyebrows furrowed even more.

“Now, how can I help you?” I didn’t know this guy, but he sure knew Jacob.

“I want to see Jacob.”

“He’s not here right now. Who are you?”

“He’s not here, my ass.” His accent was thick, possibly Italian. “I know he’s back there. Tell him to come out, or I’ll make him come out.”

“He’s really not here,” I snapped. “He’s at work. What’s this about?”

“It’s none of your concern.” He shot me a menacing look before he stepped away. “He better pay up. He can’t run forever.”

“Pay up what?” I stuck my head out so I could watch him walk away.

“Just tell him to pay what he owes, or he’ll pay with his life. It’s that simple.” He kept walking, not breaking his stride.

I walked back into the apartment and locked the door behind me. Jacob owed money? For what? Student loans? He told me he paid them off about a year ago.

Unless that was a lie.

***

Jacob walked inside an hour later than he usually did when he came home from work. He glanced at the tree but didn’t compliment the lights and the ornaments. He tossed his bag on the counter and immediately grabbed a beer from the fridge.

He didn’t acknowledge my existence. “Uh, hi?”

He twisted off the cap and downed half the beer in a single gulp.

Jacob and I hadn’t been the same in weeks. He didn’t kiss me when he came home from work. Sex was limited, and when it did happen, he got off quickly then rolled off me. While we lived together, he was never really there. Every time I questioned him, he told me everything was fine. “Hi.”

I was getting sick of his bullshit. I didn’t have a lot of patience with people when it came to bad attitudes. People needed to get over whatever issues they had and just move on. Whatever hardship he thought he lived through, mine was far worse. “Jacob, what’s your problem?”

In response, he took another drink of his beer.

“You’re like a zombie around here. We don’t have sex and—”

“I got fired.” He finished the beer before he dropped the empty bottle in the sink. It clanked loudly as it spun around until it came to a stop in the drain. He gripped the edge of the sink, his heavy coat covered with snow.

I shut my mouth when his words washed over me. It explained his closed off behavior the second he walked in the door, but it didn’t explain why he’d been so withdrawn all month. But now wasn’t the time to ask questions.

He grabbed another beer from the fridge and twisted off the cap. “I’m going to shower.” He downed all of it before he tossed it in the sink. This time, the bottle shattered, leaving broken pieces of glass everywhere. He left the kitchen and headed to the hallway.

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